Can You Be Shamed Into Casting Your Vote for U.S. President? Let’s Hope this Never Happens

Linda Musthaler
By | October 19, 2012

Posted in: Network Security Trends

Election campaign season is in full swing, and both major political parties are in a frenzy to get voters to cast their ballot. Technology plays a larger role in this election than any previous year. The campaigns have used blogs, emails and social networking effectively in the past, but this year’s hot technology appears to be business intelligence. The New York Times reports that strategists for both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are using data mining techniques to learn much more about individual voters and to appeal to them on a deeply personal level.

According to the NYT article:

In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers — friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues — will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.

The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.

The callers are likely to ask detailed questions about how the voters plan to spend Election Day, according to professionals with both presidential campaigns. What time will they vote? What route will they drive to the polls? Simply asking such questions, experiments show, is likely to increase turnout.

After these conversations, when those targeted voters open their mailboxes or check their Facebook profiles, they may find that someone has divulged specifics about how frequently they and their neighbors have voted in the past. Calling out people for not voting, what experts term “public shaming,” can prod someone to cast a ballot.

This news makes me happy about three things. First, I don’t visit porn websites, so no one will use that against me. Second, I vote early and often, so I feel no shame about not doing my civic duty. And third, I live in Texas, and the presidential candidates and their campaigns are totally ignoring this state because Texas is assumed to be already locked up as a big red state. Hopefully that means my private data isn’t in play in this election.

Beyond these three things, I find the news story terribly distressing.

These campaigns aren’t doing anything that isn’t already being done by businesses that want to sell us something. Advertisers already unabashedly track our online movements and it seems that every digital bit of information about us – public or private – is being mined for some hint of potential behavior that a marketer could influence. As I’ve said before, regrettably there is no expectation of privacy anymore). Still, it feels creepy to think that Romney’s or Obama’s campaigners are analyzing my online life to come up with an angle to hook my vote.

But here’s the really scary part. According to the NYT article:

The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com. The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.

Say what?!? The campaigns want to send letters to my neighbors to tell them how I have voted in the past? Or to tell them that I skipped the primary election last spring?? OK, now that just pisses me off. Why would any political campaign think they’d earn my favor by telling my neighbors how (or whether) I vote? If anything, that would just make me want to cast my ballot for the other party. And now I’m tempted to go visit websites or eat in restaurants that are totally out of character for me just to see if I can throw the marketers off target:

Officials at both campaigns say the most insightful data remains the basics: a voter’s party affiliation, voting history, basic information like age and race, and preferences gleaned from one-on-one conversations with volunteers. But more subtle data mining has helped the Obama campaign learn that their supporters often eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory and listen to smooth jazz. Romney backers are more likely to drink Samuel Adams beer, eat at Olive Garden and watch college football.

While I’m not old enough to have lived through the Communist witch hunts in the 1950’s, this is what guilt by association must have felt like: “She listens to jazz so she must be an Obama supporter!” “He drank a Sam Adams last week, so he must be voting for Romney!”

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has all but given up on any hope of getting U.S. advertisers to accept and enforce the voluntary “do not track” restrictions in web browsing. That puts consumers at the total mercy of marketers and advertisers. I concede that you can pop up an annoyingly targeted ad in the corner of my free email program, but I implore you—do not result to tactics like “shaming” me or anyone else based on what we do or don’t do, what we like or don’t like, and whether we vote or not. This is where we draw the red line to safeguard what little privacy we have left.

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